Monday, August 14, 2006

The Beauty of Heidelberg

So we left out of Dusseldorf on the train to Heidelberg via Mainz and Mannheim. Sure Bryan had us get off the train in Mainz for no reason, nothing like giving up your seat and toting your luggage to the platform just to hurriedly get right back on the same train. Fun times. Anywho, we eventually got to Heidelberg and our hotel...just in time to try to figure out where to eat lunch...happy day. Luckily, this time we found a serviceable place near our hotel. Sure we made the block twice before we went in, but why must you dwell on the negative. It was your basic bar with a restaurant mixed in and the food seemed to meet with everyone's approval... among other things. The place was called WAL. I don't know... and I wouldn't mention it except that it played a role in several of our days in that fair berg.

That day was basically spent resting in the room while watching games, with a sojourn out to get dinner and watch the game. I believe on the way back I had my first gelato of the trip. I would have gelato approximately 83 more times before we left. After all, it was only a euro, and that's if you wanted two scoops. Let it be known that I was mocked when I made it known to the traveling party I wanted gelato. "I don't want any gelato," said one member, "I only want ice cream." Their tune would change, oh yes, it would change.

The next day started out with a fun trip to the laundrymat. Four and half euros seemed a little steep for one load of laundry, but what are you gonna do? Besides, you'd be surprised at the amount of clothes you can stuff in a washer when each run is that pricey (Approximately six days worth). So after all the clothes had been folded we headed out for another fantastic (strike up the fanfare...) walking tour! Sure, we had strolled by many of the destinations on said tour the previous day, but we had yet to see them in their proper order so as to build that perfect historically dramatic climax. Ok, that never happened, (heck, I don't even know what that means) but I was trying to be a glass-half-full-guy. Anyway, like I said, walking tour.

I'll admit we didn't adhere completely to the guide book. I'm still trying to figure out why anyone would be interested in the German Packaging Museum. I'll just stick to the highlights. Of course, I should begin with the main attraction of the town. The Schloss, or castle to you and me, it's quite impressive. Remember this picture? It's got 8-foot-thick walls and the largest wine barrel the world has ever known. See what I mean?They also had this cool fountain of some mythical deity. I'm going with Neptune. By the way, if you check out the picture closely, you might see yours truly in the frame (really, there by his right hand, you might have to squint). Oh, I almost forgot. We rode up to the Schloss in a funicular. I tell you this because it's really fun to say funicular and I find that word doesn't make near enough appearances in my world. Go ahead, say it a couple of times, slowly, and enjoy the rest of your day.

We winded our way through town, dragging Lisa along, making all sorts of empty promises of when the tour might end and how great the payoff would be. We crossed the Atle Brucke (Old bridge, that's where the pic of me with the Schloss in the background was taken) and I thought, "While we're here we might as well go see the Philosophers' Path; it's just right up these steps." What I didn't know: there were approximately 18,000 steps, and this it not because they didn't want it to be that steep. Dear Lord. Plus, once we got to the top we realized that there was actually nothing up there. Sure, we got some great views of Heidelberg. But that's all. Well, except for the shirts soaked in sweat. Bonus. That was pretty much it for that day unless you count the 4:30 dinner and watching some soccer games, which you don't, so shut up.

Day 3 in the Heidelberg, the day of infamy. Ok, not really...well, maybe. Ok, no...I've decided definitely not. Except possibly it was. Anyway, this is the day we had conceded to Lisa as (booming announcer voice) "The Day Which Souvenirs Shall be Shopped For and Possibly Purchased". But before we did that we thought we'd take a boat ride on Neckar (Neckar! I don't even know her). Heading over to the boat we had hoped to stop at a market to pick up some water only to find them closed, odd for a Thursday at 10:45 am, but you know how unreliable those Germans are...oh wait. We ignored it and got on the boat. It was indeed a lovely ride, look how much fun Bryan and Lisa are having. More castles were seen (Honestly, they're kinda like Starbucks over there). Anyhoo, the ride was three hours round trip with a short stop at a quaint little town to turn around. We disembarked there (I have no idea what the name of the town was), and our quick stroll revealed all of the shops and most of the restaurants were closed. It was about 1:30 pm. Folks, we have a developing situation. As I mentioned, the plan all along was to begin the great crusade known as "The Day Which Souvenirs Shall be Shopped For and Possibly Purchased" as soon as we returned, but the truth of our plight began to slowly set in on the ride back. When we arrived back in Heidelberg all hope was vanquished. The shops were shut up tighter than a...well...stuff that's not open (note: metaphor censored in reaction to possible perusal by parental types. Hi Mom!) Anyway they were closed. There was much wailing and gnashing of teeth. OK, I might have just trailed behind my traveling companions chuckling, but I dare you, NAY, demand you to prove it...that's what I thought.

In an odd turn of events we had no plan B. Oh, and we also had no idea why everything was closed. We only had three German guide books with us but there was no mention that June 15th was the day in which capitalism takes a nap. Thanks for nothing Mr. Fodor! So we headed back to the hotel and watched some soccer. In case you are wondering, out of the 48 first round games I feel confident we saw some or all of about 35 of those. We were there for the World Cup after all. Oh, I forgot to mention, the previous night Germany had played Poland in the late game (9pm) and won. This set off a city wide celebration that resulted in random screaming, yelling , fire works and car horns. Keep in mind that was merely a first round win. Sure, it basically ensured that Germany would advance, but still. Annoying yes, but it's not everyday you get to experience something like that. When I finally dozed off at about 1:30 am, it was because I had finally become immune to such noise. But, back to the day at hand.

We went out, had another lovely dinner and afterwards decided to head back to our new favorite (my first ever favorite) watering hole for some libation and maybe dessert. Sure we had already had a couple of drinks at dinner (Bryan might have had more) but we're in Germany, dammit! The rest of our night would probably have been completely uneventful (you might think it was anyway) had it not been for what we encountered when we were seated. The waitress. There was nothing special about her except she was possibly one of the most fetching females I had ever come across, much less working at some spare restaurant in some spare German town. The odd part was, she didn't seem to know that she was beautiful, or if she did, it made no difference to her. If I believed in love, I might have fallen right then.

I'm not telling you this so you'll know I saw a pretty girl in Germany, that's not news. What is news is the circumstances would result from such an encounter. As we were sitting enjoying yet another game and yet another hefe (aka hefeweizen) we observed some other American with his teenage son ask the waitress if she would pose for a picture with said son. Despite her befuddlement, she relented. Stupid Americano. Anyway, Bryan and Lisa began their usual petitions that I should talk to her. They accused me of being afraid. All the normal browbeating. I'm pretty sure this is sport for them, because you know, there's no reason not to talk to a busy waitress in a town you'll be in approximately 48 more hours who barely speaks English and has already been hassled by male tourists from the U.S. That's a recipe for success if I've ever heard one. Of course, every time she came to the table Bryan wouldn't let me get a word in edgewise. So, when he had the brilliant plan (no it was not brilliant, but German beer was involved) to let me order the dessert, who am I not to go along.

So the waitress returns to the table and Bryan informs her we would like to order dessert. We had already decided we wanted two portions of the apple streusel (Germany, remember) . You might be thinking, "I thought he was going to let you order?" That's what I was thinking. I'm pretty sure that's what Lisa was thinking. Well, Bryan thought it, too. Unfortunately, like I said , he was already half way through ordering. "Yeah, we like to get some dessert", he says. And then he realized..."The Plan!" So in order to prove for all his exceptional couth, what does Bryan utilize as the ultimate smooth segue? He immediately, mid-sentence stops talking, bows his head like the preacher just asked for extra invitation time, and points at me. That's right, he tucked his little head and pointed. I look at the waitress (who must have thought the Americans were nuts), look at Bryan with a shake of the head, and order the stupid streusel. The most amazing part is that he had the gall to blame me as we left the restaurant of not making the most of my "opportunity". By the way, she was able to tell us that apparently everything was closed because of some sort of Catholic holiday. Where's separation of church and state when you need it?

The next day we headed to Stuggart for a little day trip. We had timed it so that we would be there the same day as a World Cup Game between Holland and the Ivory Coast. At one point
we had foolishly thought we might be able to find some tickets and attend the game. That is, until we arrived. The game was at 6 pm. We got off the train at 10:30 am. This is what the main square (or Schlossplatz) looked like 7 ½ hours before the game. Yeah, we weren't getting any tickets. So we hit the State Gallery, which conveniently was undergoing renovation that required two-thirds of it to be closed. Still, there was good art that I have now seen. So there's that. We took another short walking tour of the city (walking tour!) , made some failed attempts at shopping and headed back so Lisa could take another stab at "The Day Which Souvenirs Shall be Shopped For and Possibly Purchased". I recall it being wholly unsuccessful, but we (she) tried. Actually, Bryan and I might have been in a bar watching a game, but that's neither here nor there.

This was our last free night in Heidelberg as the next day we had a game to attend. I'll give you three guesses where we went for some drinks after dinner. Good job. What's that? No. She wasn’t there.

Wednesday, August 02, 2006

I got your Dussel right here!

So we embark on our 2nd long train ride of the trip, from Brussels to Koln, or as you might call it Cologne, which would eventually lead us to Dusseldorf. We were heading to Dusseldorf for an actual game. Yes, 5 days into our “World Cup Trip” we were finally going to see a game. Before that though, there’s something related to our train ride of which I must inform you.

You see, a day earlier, before we left for Brugge we stopped at the ticket desk to make a reservation for the train to Koln to ensure we got on the right train to arrive at the right time. We request the reservations and the gentleman at the desk checks to see that they are available and finds that they are. He then asks for some sort of payment, at which point I pulled out my credit card. It had been previously decided I would pay for any such expenses and we would settle accounts when we returned home. I handed him my Capital One Mastercard, because you know, they don’t charge those ridiculous international transaction fees that some of the other companies do. He took a quick look at it and said,”I cannot accept this.” We were all somewhat dumbfounded because he had already assured us they took Mastercard. I knew I wasn’t over my limit, so what was the problem? “This card has not been signed,” he said, and he handed it back. I took it, mulling over my fate and my options. It was at this point that a member of our travelling party made his first grievious error of the trip. He decided this would be the best time to debate a Euro on procedures for rendering payment and fraud protections. “We cannot accept any card that has not been signed by the holder.” I think at some point he also mentioned that they must pick their cards up at the bank and must sign them before they leave. But what you care about is what Bryan said next. What he said was…as I stood there slightly confused and wondering if any of my credit or debit cards were signed…he said, “In America they tell us not to sign the back so people ask for I.D.” At that point, my chin hit my chest and air was expelled from my mouth (I don’t know whether it was audible or not). I knew it was coming, you know it was coming, but Bryan didn’t appear to see what was coming. What came was this, “Well thankfully sir, we are not in America.” I looked at Bryan as it made impact, he was brieftly staggered but fought through. Oddly, the man behind the counter had no problem taking the card after I signed it right in front of him. I'm guessing he was in some pool to see who got to deliver that line first that day, and I’m guessing he won. Even if there wasn’t a pool, he still won.

So we arrive in Cologne after a very enjoyable ride with some lovely scenery along the way. We finally encounter World Cup crowds and World Cup atmosphere. We saw a group of American fans dressed as the Harlem Globetrotters and toting something that played the accompanying music. They were at every game… we could not get away from them. Anyway, the train to Dusseldorf was full of people, mainly U.S. fans to the point were you were happy to find a place to stand where you were only touching 3 people. Of course, I found a seat, but that’s a different story.

We got to Dusseldorf. Found Bryan’s friend who used to be a exchange student of his parents. She helped us find our hotel. We found lunch (Hello Turkish food!). We walked along the Rhine. Then we went back to the hotel and headed for the game. It was about then that we realized we shouldn’t have tarried so long at the Rhine. Our 35 minute train ride, even with the crazy—though nice—German ensuring us every 5 minutes we would make it on time could not arrive fast enough. Once there (the game was actually in Gelsenkerchen, a suburb of Dusseldorf), we had to get to the stadium. No easy task when thousands of other people are going the same way. We got to the stadium and through security and found our seat apporximately 90 second before the game started.

About our seats. For this game we had four. At one point we thought we might be met by a friend of Lisa’s but that didn’t happen. That was lucky for me because even though I had four consecutively numbered seats in the same section, one was across the aisle that featured a barrier down the middle of it, no less. With the extra seat I was able to sit with my friends and watch a rather lackluster defeat…

Even so, it was an amazing experience. I’ve said it before on this blog but just in case you missed it I’ll say it again. There is nothing like a big time (or even moderately sized) sporting event where one of the teams is representing your country. People in costumes, girls in very patriotic bikinis, continuous chanting and cheering , it's almost sensory overload. Especially when you mix in the world class athletes.

So they lost. It sucked. And then we had to get back to the train station. No easy task. The trams and buses were completely overloaded and who knew how long the wait would be for one we could actually fit in. So we started walking. In hindsight, this might have been a mistake as the stadium was actually about 2 and half to 3 miles from the train station. We walked and I realized my foot really hurt. We kept walking. About 30 minutes in we arrived at the entry and exit to fan fest. (Don’t get me started) They had a bus stop there but usually by the time the bus got there it had already been filled way up the road. There was some discussion about whether we should wait or not but I just stopped walking. Luckily, some guy running the stop decided that a bus headed to the stadium should stop and pick up the handful of us waiting there. So we got on a completely empty bus, thank God. Oh, as we were about to enter the bus, Mia Hamm, star of the women’s US team and spokesman for all women’s sports walked by. She seemed really intent on not being noticed and I let her be. Not that I could have thought of anything to say anyway.

As I mentioned in one of my posts from Germany, the ride back was actually quite fun as I sat with some English and Scottish guys and we talked about all American sports. One of them was convinced that John Stockton of Utah Jazz fame had a nickname equal to that of his Mailman Karl Malone counterpart. I had to sadly report that I knew of no such nickname. Also seated with us was a girl from Tyler…Texas…what are the chances?

We finally got back to the hotel and me to my crap bed, which was actually one of those that fold out chairs that you see in hospitals. I slept, though. For tomorrow we would finally start enjoying Germany on a whole new level.